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Metalworkers rethink wage strategy

10 February 2004

FRANKFURT – The leadership of Germany’s powerful metalworkers union IG Metall began meeting Tuesday in Frankfurt to review the union’s next moves in a wage conflict with employers.

However, IG Metall deputy chairman Berthold Huber said he was “sceptical” that a new wage deal could be reached in talks with the employers, according to an interview published Tuesday by the Financial Times.

The union is seeking a one-year, 4 percent pay rise for some 3.5 million workers in Germany’s key metals engineering and electronics sectors.

The employers association Gesamtmetall has offered two increases, of 1.2 percent each, to be carried out over a 27-month wage accord period.

But Gesamtmetall coupled the offer with a demand that there be an option to increase working hours, in a “corridor” of 35 to 40 hours per week, at no additional pay, as companies may require. IG Metall flatly rejected this.

After a one-month truce period expired at the end of January, IG Metall began a campaign of limited warning strikes, calling off tens of thousands of workers for one-hour walkouts at plants around the country in order to step up the pressure on employers.

On Tuesday, the union again called thousands of metalworkers off their jobs in various parts of the country, a focal point being a Ford car plant in the city of Saarlouis.

Meanwhile Huber, who heads IG Metall’s collective bargaining unit, told the FT that IG Metall was not keen on all-out strike action, while indicating that the working time issue, rather than wages, had become the focal point in the dispute with Gesamtmetall.

But he was cautious about the prospects for a deal.

“I’m sceptical that we can find a solution at the negotiating table,” Huber said. He called the Gesamtmetall demand for longer working hours as being “totally unacceptable”, with the union prepared to defend the 35-hour work week.

“Our people see the idea of working 40 hours a week, in some cases without extra pay, as an unacceptable provocation,” he said.

For IG Metall, the wage battle is the first faceoff against employers after its disastrous campaign in the summer of 2003 to try to force through the 35-hour week in eastern Germany.

The union was forced to back down in the face of employers’ resistance and increasingly damaging publicity to the union when its strategy of hit-and-run strikes, chiefly against automotive components suppliers, caused some car plant shutdowns in the west.

In the FT interview, Huber said the “mistakes we made” in 2003 would not be repeated in IG Metall’s current wage conflict strategy.

Subject: German news